So here I am, in southern France, at the end of August in my little rented house in Taurize, in the Corbières region of the Languedoc.
Let me look at the map and trace the many kilometres I’ve driven since I started the journey on July 13th in Amsterdam.
Here I go south, via the Delta Works of Zeeland – tinkering with the landscape in a big way is something the Dutch are famously good at in their constant battle with the North Sea, and with water in general – following the coast of Belgium where my grandfather used to take his beach holidays, through Northern France via Normandy, Picardy and Champagne to the Jura, on to the southern route along Lake Geneva to Aigle and up into the Alps to the ski village of Leysin, my old 1973 stamping grounds. Locarno and the Valle Maggia in Ticino are next, where my parents used to have a vacation house. I return to France via Turin and cross the Alps again.
What a trip it’s been, as we used to sing with The Grateful Dead in the ‘sixties! What follows are some miscellaneous, fairly uncoordinated thoughts and impressions about various aspects along the way that struck me. So far, I’ve added 8,000 kilometres to my car’s odometer . . . and I’m nowhere near finished yet. I took a year out of Canada to put my life into ‘fourth gear’ again, to fuel my imagination with fresh experiences and to re-ignite my European self. For this first episode, my focus is on France.
As for practicalities while conducting a nomadic life for a year: First of all, I bought an older Peugeot 207 car in the Netherlands. It had unusually low mileage, no dents, good tires and was thoroughly serviced by a garage in Rotterdam. Two suitcases and a backpack in the trunk, filled with only the most essential three-season clothes and hiking gear, a packing challenge in itself. I have a tent on board as well, with a sleeping bag and air mattress to increase my freedom of choice along the way as to how and where to spend the night.
For a roadside lunch, I buy mainly cheese and bread, two out of three of France’s tastiest products (the third being wine!), to save some money along the way. Lunch, with its three or more courses on a set daily menu is the main meal in France and many restaurants only open from noon to 2:30 pm. The French do a great deal of eating, drinking and socializing at this time: the country comes to a full standstill while everything is closed until after 3 pm, so it’s a great time to drive because the local roads are empty. As for me, dining in restaurants is possibly the least fun aspect of traveling alone. I don’t want to sit in the melée hogging a table for two and reading a book or have other people feel sorry for me, a pitiful person obviously devoid of family or friends. They may find it utterly incomprehensible for a lone traveling woman to be perfectly happy not to have to make ‘group decisions’ or have her attention diverted by chitchatting with others, never having been much of a chatterbox . . Who knows. On the wing, I stop at a glorious viewpoint along the road and enjoy my sandwich.
Variously, I camp or take hotel rooms, as low-budget as I can find them, which means either older downtown hotels or past-their-due date places on the outskirts of towns, often with a seemingly eccentric character behind the counter who’d be glad – and surprised – to see me, to break the boredom. This was high tourist season, but these places seemed rather empty, which tells you something about mainstream tourists’ ways of traveling – and spending. Then again, quite a few auberges and small hotels were simply closed, even in mid-summer, presumably because the owners were on holidays themselves to escape the heat. Clearly, it’s not always just about the money here in France, and that’s to be appreciated. Usually, the ‘Ibis Budget’ chain in the larger cities reliably delivers when all else fails, with its small, clinical low-maintenance rooms that feel more like prison. Here, you encounter the recent immigrants to France, the Mahgrebians, the Africans. Who says that all guests are potential thieves that will defoul, wreck and strip the place? But that’s how you’re made to feel here: a little criminal who’s willing to pay up to $80 a night for the accusation.
Driving much too slowly in the opinion of the locals who’re ‘sitting on the tail’ of my car while aiming at the first opportunity to pass on these winding roads, I’m oh-ing and ah-ing to myself over the beauty of the villages, the countryside and often also the skies above. To me, the light seems different here from that in western Canada, the more southerly you go in France: more hues, warmer, less glaring, but maybe I’m just imagining this. The weather can change on a dime, especially in autumn when the stacked layers of different-looking cloud formations move fast and give the topography of the landscape its lovely scala of appearances. In September, seeing the dark, dense early morning fog over the hills disappear while the temperature still rises swiftly into the high twenties is a treat, just when you thought it was going to be a bad-weather day. And when you’re convinced it’s going to pour because you see the rainclouds crying on the hills nearby, the dark sky moves on and it’s sunny again where you stand, giving you the gift of a double rainbow if you’re lucky. Van Gogh had it right, he was a keen observer of the light in Provence and found creative ways to depict it. Perhaps it’s something the Dutch are particularly sensitive to: when art critics write, they similarly suggest that the quality of the light in the Netherlands during the four seasons has a lot to do with the beauty of the work of the Great Master painters. Then again, here in France, the skies are mainly stark blue for weeks on end in the hot, dry summers, when this intriguing drama is absent.
I feel an exhilarating sense of complete freedom while I drive ‘à l’improviste’ for weeks without a pre-determined destination, never knowing where I’ll be that night. When you don’t have a goal or an address to go to, you can’t get lost. No digital devices needed, just a good map to generally keep you going in the right direction. Maps really are the best, showing you the larger context of where you are, plus an indication of where the small roads lead so you can keep off the freeways altogether. You find places to stay that would be particularly hard to find if all you had was their address. I luck into them, just driving by which nets me some of the most charming rural places, with friendly owners who, after explaining my situation, offer me a bed without the more standard internet reservation.
Free as a bird, winging it through Europe – on wheels. What a way to travel the by-roads, looking, thinking, questioning, learning, taking it all in like a sponge. I feel an urgency, I want to see it all: I begin to think one year is not enough. When, at this age, does this ever happen, embedded as most of us are by possessions, real estate, grandchildren, work, all manner of responsibilities and, possibly, finding ourselves with physical and mobility issues setting in?
Grooving on the landscape, zig-zagging my way south, it would be me who notices that on a given spectacularly panoramic spot along a road, staunch Catholics manage to install a ‘long-suffering Jesus on the Cross,’ spoiling the beauty of the view but sure to remind you of humankind’s nature of endless conflict, intolerance, pain and guilt. What a way of denying you your good mood, your sense that life is generally good, should you dare to prefer that view of the world! Granted, I’m extraordinarily privileged in the way I am right now and recognize it gratefully. Life is indeed confusing with all its beauty and its pain as these Christians are trying to remind you, but for now, Hamas and Ukraine have become events taking place very far away from my current bucolic existence. I feel blissfully removed from the daily barrage of news about it without feeling guilty, and only occasionally listen to a lecture or read an opinion piece on the computer. I’m not unaware; I’m not ignorant, but I vote for the simple beauty of being alive right now. That was the hopeful purpose of this ‘sabbatical year’ and so far, my vote is the winner.
France does not disappoint with its vast, complicated cultural and religious patrimony. From what’s still visible here in the built environment, much of it many hundreds of years old, one can agree that the good and the bad of humankind’s deeds are offered up in equal doses (the worst of the ‘bad,’ in modern terms, is possibly the ugly Americanization on the outskirts of the larger towns, the huge, flat-surface storage buildings, car-dependent services and mega-supermarkets that gobble up the agricultural lands around the formerly, beautifully compact towns. Not only a French phenomenon though, it’s happening all over Europe and we have only ourselves and our current consumer lifestyle to blame).
So yes, you’re constantly, vividly confronted here with the kinds of contradictions of what ‘wellbeing’ truly means for people and to what extent they want to fight for their beliefs and bring about the kind of sufferings we continue to bear as human beings.
The Cathars were wiped out. They were Christians living in the Languedoc area, but had a different take on theology and were proclaimed heretics because of it by the much more powerful Roman Catholics. More specifically, the Cathars insisted that material wealth was the work of the Devil, and seeing the Papal bishopry’s accumulation of riches displayed in palaces, abbeys and personal, bejuweled presentations irked them, obviously.
In the Languedoc, you see this historical conflict in worldviews all around you. The remaining ruins of the Cathar bastions of fortified villages and castles, built on ever more precarious cliffs in an effort to keep the Catholic oppressor out, are an awe-inspiring sight to the modern tourist: Queribus and Peyrepertuse in southern Languedoc being the most dramatic examples. Additionally, the Gothic French cathedrals are, architecturally speaking, a high point in Western civilization, and so is the music still regularly performed in them. Hearing the huge pipe organs or the liturgical, polyphonic choral chants from the Middle Ages makes you think these sound as sweet as the angels depicted by the Christians in their art. A clever way to lead you to religion, to convince you of the presence of a higher authority who aims at elevating you into a morally and ethically righteous person . .
If all of Christianity’s deeds had strived to be this consistently beautiful, the world would have been a better place. But no, we all know by reading Europe’s history and its effect on the rest of the world that this has been far from a gentle process. Nevertheless, we tourists in France equally admire the beauty of absolutist kings’ and papal palaces, the cathedrals, the 11th and 12th Century churches in the villages, the impressive abbeys – now often serving as wineries or, carefully restored, as museums – and the iconography of paintings, sculptures and other religious decorations inside these places. As long as we give some thought, now and then, to the plight of the common people of the day who were forced to laboriously support and believe in this system of exorbitant, exploitative inequality, because if they didn’t, the result would have been quite simple: off with their heads! The peasants knew they couldn’t win: armies of any stripe would loot and pillage them and their crops just the same – until they finally stood up, making for revolutionary change by establishing the French Republic in 1792. Heads kept rolling of course, but this time the folk did the rolling. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose, as the ‘aw chucks’ French put it.
Back to northern France: it’s August, the wheatfields have been harvested, the second growth of grass has been cut and large combines are busy baling the straw and hay in the fields. The modern way of doing this is to pack the stuff tight into enormous rolls – the rectangular, smaller bales of old no longer exist – wrap them with green, black or white plastic afterward and stack them in a corner of the field, a practice that unfortunately doesn’t do much for the look of the bucolic rural landscape.
I talked to a Frenchman at some point whose occupation was ‘combine driver.’ Upon hearing I live in Canada, he got all enthusiastic and told me that once, he visited Ontario and Quebec, but that a definite highlight for him was driving a monster-combine in Saskatchewan. ‘Best holiday I ever had in my whole life,’ he said, driving one of these beasts in Saskatchewan! Good to hear such impressions from someone else, about this particular province many of us in British Columbia tend not to have much ‘truck’ with. I know Canadians who were born and raised there, but they all moved on . . .
Fields-full of sunflowers in summer, as far as the eye can see, uphill, downhill, over the hill. Despite the glamour of their huge yellow and brownish black flower, one per stalk, their heads are heavy, they hang down. But every one is turned toward the morning sun, like a flock of birds who collectively agree on the direction taken. Depressed, yes, but clearly there’s sun which gives hope. Later, when they’re all black and dried out while forming their seedheads, these regimented sunflower fields resemble the war cemeteries filled with simple crosses for 19-year old fallen soldiers, such as I’ve seen at Vimy Ridge in Northern France. Except, the Allied soldiers’ crosses are white. Significantly, in the occasional German-enemy WWI cemetery you encounter in these parts, the crosses are black. It’s the very end of August now in southern France, and all of a sudden the sad sunflowers have been beheaded. Did they know it was coming? It still takes me by surprise to see their mere left-over stalks sticking straight out of the earth, even though I know full well it’s the oil from the seeds that counts, not the striking beauty of the flowers. It’s the same refrain with the glorious tulip flowers of the Netherlands being cut in full bloom: it’s all about the bulbs.
The short life of Sunflowers or Tournesol – as in ‘turned to the Sun.’
I’ve never been especially interested in military history, but I admit to having been touched by the experience of seeing the immaculately Canadian-maintained site at Vimy and its impressive monument which, these days, overlooks a valley that’s still sad like it was during the war, now filled with mountains of black slag and other modern human interference. Of course, the gruesome war battles that took place here profoundly altered the landscape: the entire surrounding forest floor is, to this day, still visibly undulated from the tunneling, trenches, communication channels and explosions, despite the replanted, now-mature pine trees and well-groomed grass covering this former wasteland.
The Canadian WWI Monument at Vimy Ridge . . . and the still visibly disturbed lands on the ridge.
Being confronted by the reality of this WWI episode, brought to life during a guided tour underground into what’s left of the trenches and bunkers, is to finally, viscerally, understand what these young soldiers had to face: constant cold, rain, mud, mice, fleas, angst, terror and panic, noise, death and wounded. To see here that the enemy was sometimes less than twenty-five metres away from you in an opposite trench, that you had to be dead-silent not to be shot at over such a short distance, greatly enhances your sense of terror about a battle that never netted the Allies more than a few kilometres of conquered territory, only to be taken back by the Germans soon after at great cost of life, but that a definite advance over the Germans was accomplished at this location. The young victim-soldiers must have been painfully aware of an endless and useless war waged in mid-winter, and they would have been right, but saying so was not the kind of democratic freedom their nation claimed it was fighting for. Military heroism and self-sacrifice were the ideological focus in the annals of this history. The exhibit is journalistic in tone, and the Monument’s Mourning Lady expresses the universal sadness of it all rather well.
Onwards on the diagonal through northern France, to Laon, a fortified city situated on a high, croissant-shaped rocky outcrop that overlooks the surrounding flat lands of wheat fields and small forests. I find a very steep footpath leading the hundred forested metres up from the flats to the ramparts, and hike to the other end of the city to the Citadel with its storied history. Laon was the capital of the Carolingean kings of France and their descendants, as well as an episcopal seat with a restive, emancipating ‘commune’ in between the two, which tended to take sides with the bishops. Which was why the king was afraid of his own protesting subjects. He gave orders to demolish an entire Laon neighbourhood to make way for a military citadel with armature directed back at the local citizenry, not at some outside enemy as was normally the case with these walled medieval cities. I encountered a similar situation later, in the city of Albi in the Tarn region, where it was the bishops themselves who lived in fear of their own people, holed up in their inpenetrably fortified and thoroughly militarized palace. Granted, times must have been confusing to the common people: whose commands to obey, the local Lords’, the King’s or the Pope’s, so often fighting one another for their independent, absolute power, held to be their divine right.
Inside the huge Laon cathedral, you’ll find the large stained-glass rosette behind the pipe organ that depicts the Nine Liberal Arts: Theology and thus Philosophy in the centre, Rhetoric, Grammar, Dialectics, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Medicine, Geometry and Music encircling it. Despite the constant war mongering, decorating a church this way attests to the lively intellectual climate in the late Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, when scientific inquiry was not yet separated from religion.
Street decorations in the city of Laon.
The weather holds; it’s sunny and warm every day so far. Next, beyond the Champagne area and its intensive grape cultivation, I camp on the windy shores of the Lac de Der: a large man-made lake that supplies the City of Paris with drinking water. A rented bike takes me around the extensive forest domains surrounding the lake, and I discover the little village of Voillecomte with its perfectly intact, gothic ‘wooden skeleton’ or half-timber houses, a building technique that’s common in the Alzace (‘charpente’) and Germany (‘Fachwerk’). There’s a little old church in nearby Braucourt that features a wooden, covered porch along its side which looks friendly, unlike the formidable cathedrals more common elsewhere in the region. It invites sociable conversation after the service, so the community of the day called it a ‘Caquetaire,’ a gallery meant for chitchatting.
There’s a Swiss interlude of two weeks in my story here, with two key destinations, places that were pivotal in my life, each in a different way. Leysin, the ski resort in the Alps above Aigle where I worked – or rather, partied – in the winter of 1973 – 74, is the place where I met many English-speaking people from all over the world, and where I got it into my head to move to Canada. I was 24. With an Australian friend who had the same idea, I went to the Canadian consulate in Bern to apply for a Landed Immigrant status. No problem: I received the document within weeks; quite a bit different from the way immigration works nowadays.
The mountains behind the Swiss ski village of Leysin with Lake Geneva in the background; Our little house in Someo, Ticino, unchanged since its renovation in 1965.
My second destination was in the canton of Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland where my parents had a vacation house. In the mid-Sixties they bought a dilapidated hay stable in the farmer’s village of Someo in the valley of the Maggia, a river that runs into the Lago Maggiore. My parents were in love with Switzerland, its mountains and the local vernacular architecture of stacked granite nature-stones held together by gravity. So my father carefully re-designed the stable into a habitable, cute little house, within the strict architectural regulations established by the regional district. No ‘foreign materials’ allowed, no out-sized windows, nothing to expand the original envelope of the historical building. Our family and many friends visited the place every summer so I knew the area well. And yes, even now, fifty years later, I felt completely intimate with this landscape and retraced many of the hikes we did then, even staying in the same Hotel Cristallina that my parents bivouaced in during the construction of the house. It, too, has been renovated in the meantime, given a new life as a sustainable ‘eco-hotel’ for active vacationers, owned by an enthusiastic and energetic couple.
Roaming the trails here and doing some strenuous hikes high in the Alps above the Valle Maggia refreshed many memories and hardly ever, since the death of my parents, was I in such vivid conversation with them. Being here, in this place so firmly embedded in their soul, made for a much better memorial than a token visit to a graveyard. They would have loved to know that I re-visited Someo to prove my long-dormant but very real affection for the place. But this time, walking beside them in their beloved Switzerland, hearing clearly their voices and opinions once more, I could retort as an adult with a long life of experiences and opinions of her own, making this visit into a meaningful, if teary, closure for me.
From here, I make a beeline back to France via Turin and the Piedmont, crossing the Alps by a little known route over the Maddalena Pass into the Haute-Provence. A nice surprise here on this curvy road: I encounter what looked like hundreds of little old, brightly painted ‘Renault-Quatre’ cars driving in the opposite direction, steadily passing in little clusters, doing a rally called les Quatres Alpes if I remember correctly, where they crisscross the mountains several times with Menton as their end destination. France’s streetscape used to be inundated with these little utilitarian cars, together with the iconic Citroën Deux Chevaux, also known as the ‘Ugly Duck’ because of is beak-shaped front. As with the disappearance of the Beetle, I miss them.
I think the central part of France, the Corrèze, Haute Vienne and Dordogne, offers some of the most varied and beautiful, smaller-scale cultural landscapes. They include different grain crops, grazing and hay fields curtained by stands of mature decidious forests; all of it formerly belonging to the many large châteaux domineering the compact villages where the ‘support staff’ lived. Feudal or not, papal or royal, we, the visitors, admire the look of this historical land and the way its buildings have been restored, often by expatriates with their own money, but also by the local French communities who take great pride in their heritage. It’s over-the-top pretty in places. Ségur-le-Château is one of my favorites with its quirky buildings and surprising corners; when I was there they held a big ‘brocante,’ an antiques and bric à brac market. Ample geraniums and other potted plants, climbing roses, wysterias and flowering bushes help to make these villages picture-perfect, so unlike the way they must have looked in the days when free-roaming pigs picked up the garbage and Madame De Pompadour, the influential mistress of King Louis XV (around 1750; she of ‘Après nous, le déluge’), needed to be lifted from her castle into the carriage to keep her silk dress out of the mud. This impressive 15th Century Château de Pompadour, near Arnac, was a gift from the King to his mistress, and is now the setting for medieval games, plays and parades organized by the local tourist office. There’s a well-known horse racecourse beside it that offers equestrian events throughout the year.
The creative shapes of Ségur-le-Château: no real reason to build this way other than that it’s fun and beautiful. Simply a ‘gift to the street!’ That goes for the majority of older buildings in French towns and cities: they’re richly decorated, quite playful at times and a joy to look at. Right: A perfectly preserved Renaissance façade in the village of Ségur.
Modern art: Left: Swiss architect Mario Botta’s Chapel in Mogno, Valle Maggia, a modern interpretation of the area’s vernacular architecture, using the same granite nature stone. Right: A gigantic ‘Trompe l’oeil’ piece, painted on the alpine grass at Villars, Switzerland.
Also in Villars: a photography exhibit in the middle of a forest, why not? On your trail, you encounter more than 20 large images of ‘lammergeiers,’ bearded vultures, in full flight. They live in and around the area’s steep rockfaces.
From here, I have sentimental reasons to visit Saint Émilion in the midst of the Bordeaux wine area (It’s about the Vendange: I picked grapes for their precious wines in 1973 and had a fabulous time. See the ‘Wine’ post soon to appear on this blog). After that stop I make my way south-east following the Garonne River to Albi in the Tarn, a wild, mountainous and green area full of gorges and rivers, beloved by hikers. Medieval Albi has a magnificent episcopal palace that straddles the River Tarn, and an equally incredulously proportioned, opulent cathedral as part of the complex. Out of Albi came the order to get rid of the Cathars to the south: known as the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ conducted in the 13th Century. Ironically enough, the palace is now the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum because the artist was born here: the exhibit houses a wonderful collection of Lautrec’s famously naughty subjects of low-life, bohemians and prostitutes.
Left: The out-sized Episcopal Palace of Albi. Right: What I liked about Albi is how they commissioned a cartoonist to tell the city’s story by drawing story-board strips that explain, conversationally, the complicated histories of the various features you see in front of you.
Inside the Sainte-Cécile Cathedral of Albi: under the church organ, a depiction of Heaven and Hell. On the right: detail of Hell. Quite an amusing scene, actually.
The mineral-rich rocky mountains here also contain some extensive caves that you can visit. I took a tour of the ‘Grottes des Demoiselles.’ It’s a wild wonderland, a space-case only a Gothic novelist – or film maker David Cameron – can conjure, with its enormous echoing halls and tunnels full of the craziest sculptural architecture, formed exclusively by the petrified earth’s chemical components interacting with seeping water, an ongoing process of millions of years.
Question posed by the tourist guide to the group at some point: ‘What do you see in this free-standing shape ahead of you?’ ‘Why, the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in Arms of course’ is the immediate answer, in chorus. I look again: yes, quite. Here we go again.
The legend goes that a young man fell into the cave while herding his sheep, passed out and found himself surrounded by sweet nymphs dancing and singing around him when he came to, hence the name of the cave. It would seem to me that any young man, anywhere, doesn’t need much of a tumble into a cave to find himself dreaming up such a scenario . . . But I let that go; didn’t want to spoil the magic.
Wild erosive shapes inside the ‘Grottes des Demoiselles in the Tarn District.
I’ve arrived in the Languedoc, a province that includes the Hérault above Beziers and the Aude Valley with Carcassonne at its centre is the southernmost area of France, close to the Pyrenées and Spain. We’re in the last week of August now. This is my final destination for the next two and a half months: I’ve rented a little house near Lagrasse in the Corbières for the first three weeks, followed by another for the next one and a half months, north of Béziers at Saint Chinian. This will take me to November 1st. High time for some stationary existence to rest the mind and digest this heavy, daily load of new impressions.
– July 13 to August 26, 2023 –
Next post: some thoughts about life in the Languedoc.
Then: some more specific thoughts about the Wines of Languedoc. Sweet French Jesus, I’ve made your acquaintance all along this trip so help me now, I’m in constant temptation bordering on gluttony! Am I on the Highway to Hell or on the By-ways of Bliss?
Oops, wrong way . .